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Before the coronavirus hit, Bowdoinham organic farmer Ian Jerolmack made the decision to convert to a no-tilling method this year, hoping to reduce soil erosion. It would use more compost, but the difference in the product would be worth it.
He stuck with it as the pandemic upended many of his other plans. Restaurants closed for dine-in service, drying up many of his sales. Now, the state is running out of compost, making his already difficult job running an organic farm in a public health crisis even thornier.
Compost producers have sold unprecedented amounts of compost to consumers and garden centers since the pandemic began, as stay-at-home orders have prompted more people to plant gardens. Suppliers, in turn, are nearly out of the product, putting Maine organic farmers, who need the material to meet certification standards, in a tight spot.
Farmers have weathered numerous hurdles since the onset of the pandemic. After the state ordered restaurants closed to dine-in services in March, many pivoted to direct-to-consumer models. A statewide seed shortage later that month marked one of the pandemic’s first effects on the state’s agricultural system.
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Now, the statewide shortage is “impacting organic farmers in a major way,” said Jerolmack, who has run the 10-acre diversified organic vegetable farm since 2009.
“Everyone is exploring their inner homesteader and survival seems like the priority,” Jerolmack said. “It’s wonderful, but it’s skewing the market.”
The compost shortage is not an easy problem to solve. The product has a turnaround time that can take anywhere from six weeks to a year, so manufacturers cannot quickly ramp up to meet short-term demand. Compost production is especially tough in Maine, where sustained freezing temperatures over the winter can suspend maturation.
Organic farmers are already working longer hours for less pay after the virus rearranged their business models. Jerolmack estimates that 90 percent of his business in a typical year came from restaurants. That’s now “down to 1 percent,” he said. He’s sold more CSA shares than he normally does, but it’s “not the kind of summer numbers [needed] to survive.”
“The organic farms are going to be in trouble,” said Dennis Gallant, who owns Country Fare, a compost manufacturing company in Bowdoinham. “The farms that aren’t totally organic can use chicken manure or cow manure. The organic farmer, I don’t know what they’ll do.”
It’s “definitely homeowners” that account for the spike, with an additional boost from out-of-state transplants coming up to the state to escape the virus, Gallant said. The amount he’s already sold this year typically takes him through July 15.
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Farmers at any of the state’s 567 farms certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association have a few available options to use in lieu of compost, such as using organic cover crops like legumes that add to soil fertility, said Sarah Alexander, MOFGA’s director.
Those options, however, take more time. Alexander said the compost shortage is “a situation that she would continue to monitor” going forward and could be an opportunity for the state to compost more of its food waste.
“As organic certifiers, we work with every producer to make sure that they’re going to meet the qualifications that they need to keep their organic certification,” Alexander said.
Farmers who didn’t already reserve their season’s worth of compost may have to switch to a non-organic fertilizer and risk breaking certification standards. Others may be forced to plant seeds later in the season when more becomes available.
Prominent garden centers like Skillins in Falmouth and O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham have sold significantly more compost to home gardeners in April and May compared with last year, the stores told the BDN. Alexander said that she has also seen more farmers switch to a compost-heavy model like Jerolmack, adding to demand.
Some compost producers say that reliance on organic compost is a relatively new phenomenon, corresponding with an increase in organic foods at Maine markets and restaurants, which was elevated to become the backbone of the state’s tourist economy.
Eddie Benson has sold topsoil and growing materials at Benson Farm Earth Products in Gorham for 19 years. Benson saw a significant increase in compost sales since the beginning of the farm-to-table movement, and now the product comprises half of his sales.
“People haven’t been using compost a lot until the last 5 or 10 years,” Benson said. “There’s a lot of small farmers that are trying to grow organic.”
Some of the demand from homeowners comes from Mainers’ increased concern for food security as the pandemic devastates food and economic systems. Another reason, Benson thinks, is simpler.
“People are bored,” he said. “They have to find something to do besides watch TV.”
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